Dodge County will consider raising the hourly fee for court-appointed attorneys, officials confirmed to the Tribune this week.

Currently, Dodge County appoints private attorneys for individuals who cannot afford their own in court in order to fulfill the constitutional right to counsel.

Dodge County pays those attorneys a fee of $70 per hour for felony cases, and around $55 for misdemeanors, according to Dodge County District Court Judge Geoffrey Hall. The proposed change would increase the hourly rate to $95 in both felony and misdemeanor cases.

Such a decision would mirror many other northeast Nebraska counties who have already set their rates at $95, officials say.

In a Feb. 20 letter, Washington County District Court Judge John Samson informed the chairmen of both the Washington and Burt County boards that he would be increasing the hourly fee for court-appointed attorneys in those counties from $75 to $95, effective July 1.

“As you are aware, the county must provide legal representation for defendants who are indigent,” Samson wrote. “Several months ago, I was asked to consider increasing the hourly attorney fee rate for lawyers who are court-appointed. It was mentioned that the current hourly rate of $75.00 was not a reasonable hourly rate when considering overhead expenses incurred by attorneys.”

Samson listed nearly a dozen northeast Nebraska Counties who have already increased their fees to $95 per hour: Thurston, Dakota, Cedar, Wayne, Madison, Stanton, Cuming, Platte, Colfax, Butler and Saunders.

When the court-appointed attorney fees rise in Washington and Burt Counties, Dodge will be the only county in the sixth judicial district that still has a rate below $95, according to Hall.

Hall confirmed to the Tribune that he had forwarded Samson’s letter to the Dodge County Board of Supervisors, and notified the board that he would consider the fee raise as well, in order to keep all of the district’s counties uniform.

Nothing has been decided at this point, however: Hall said he hopes that he and County Court Judge Kenneth Vampola will meet with board representatives and the county attorney’s office to discuss the issue further.

“We intend to meet with the judges — the county attorney’s office, myself, the judges — and just kind of talk about what that looks like for us, just exactly all the protocols behind what [Samson’s] letter is indicating,” said Dodge County Board Chairman Bob Missel.

Missel added that the change would present a “significant” increase to Dodge County’s budget for court-appointed attorneys. Numbers provided by the Dodge County Clerk’s office show that those expenditures were already up in the last fiscal year.

Court-appointed attorney expenditures in Dodge County District Court were at a 30-year high in the 2017 to 2018 fiscal year at $205,139.96. The total amount spent on court-appointed attorneys between district, criminal county and juvenile court in the 2017 to 2018 fiscal year was $536,939.09, the most since the number hit a 30-year peak of nearly $700,000 in 2014.

Hall noted that the proposed change would apply only to District Court and County Court — Juvenile Court could see a change as well, he said, but it may be less than $95.

While raising attorney fees would increase spending further, it could be necessary to ensure that attorneys are fairly compensated for their work — and that the district’s counties can continue to attract quality attorneys for court-appointed work. At least, that was the impetus behind the decision in Washington and Burt Counties, Samson said.

“The problem we run into in rural counties, as you might imagine, if we’re not somewhat competitive with the attorney fees, it’s getting more and more difficult to find competent counsel to represent defendants,” Samson said. “So that’s the problem is that we were the last few counties to go to that, and some of them have been doing that for some time.”

Additionally, in speaking to attorneys who practice in Washington and Burt Counties, Samson learned that the wages had not kept up with attorneys’ expenses.

“Those rates have been around a while, and when the attorneys told me that, when you consider their overhead … they’re not making much money per hour, and that’s not fair either,” Samson said. “I know there are some attorneys that I talked to that are no longer doing court appointments because of the low hourly rate.”

The Tribune attempted to reach several attorneys who practice in Dodge County between Thursday and Friday, but did not hear back by press time.

Dodge County is unique from the other counties listed in Samson’s letter who have moved to a $95 fee rate because the county has a significantly higher caseload than most of them. In 2018 the county saw 891 cases filed in district court, according to data collected by the Nebraska Judicial Branch, by far the most in the sixth judicial district.

The Dodge County Board is also facing a tight budget — it raised property taxes in its last budget cycle after taking on debt for an $11 million project with Motorola Solutions to replace the county’s emergency radio system for first responders.

A change in the fee rate could prompt discussion among county officials about how they handle criminal and indigent defense.

Washington County Attorney Scott Vander Schaaf, for instance, told the Tribune that the Washington County Board of Supervisors is now discussing “alternatives” to the court-appointed attorney system. That could manifest in the county setting up a contract with an attorney, or several attorneys, that would represent certain court-appointed cases on a salaried or part-time basis.

And here in Dodge County, both Missel and Hall suggested that the prospect of a fee raise could potentially bring up the conversation about adopting a public defender — a salaried government official who provides defense counsel.

“it probably brings up the discussion once again about having a public defender,” Missel said.

It’s a conversation the county’s had before. In a 2006 Tribune article, for instance, board members discussed the potential of a public defender as court-appointed attorney fees were rising, but the idea was not pursued.

It’s unclear at this point exactly what that would look like, or how it could impact the county.

Missel stressed that any discussion about raising attorney fees is still preliminary at this point, and the next step for Dodge County is for officials to meet in order to discuss options.

“There’s not much to say other than it’s something we’re going to look into,” he said.